I first encountered Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” over 40 years ago, courtesy of my old English schoolteacher. During that time, he attempted (whether successfully, or otherwise) to instil a love of poetry and literature into his pupils. Not sure if he thought that he was banging his head against a brick wall, but I still remember to this day much that he taught us. And I always recall that a particular favourite of his was Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”
He also said something that still reverberates in my memory, something about comparing many of the tales to scenes from the “Carry On” films! I suppose, in some ways, he wasn’t too far off the truth. Although Chaucer’s language is far richer and more poetic, both manage to convey comic human desires and frailties that everyone can easily recognise and heartily laugh at – regardless of the vast distance in time from each other.
This particular production by the young company of Close Up Theatre brings Chaucer’s stories to colourful life. Even though the original writing stems from the 14th century, I (and much of the audience) laughed aloud at the absurd situations that many of the characters would find themselves in. For the uninitiated, many of Chaucer’s tales are unapologetically lusty, bawdy, raucous and filled to the brim with the basic thrusts of primal desire. I even noticed the prominent placing of two ripe turnips, as well as a large cucumber on two of the cast members during the prelude, thus giving us all a taste and a warning, of what would soon unfold before us. Yet at the same time, many of the tales display a strong humanistic moral quality, that is presented here by this very gifted young cast, with a great deal of foresight, energy, intelligence and wit.
The plot follows a disparate group of pilgrims as they travel to Canterbury, taking some rest on their journey in a local tavern. It is there (after much strong ale is consumed) that the travellers relax and then regale each other with many a tall tale full of wenching, brawling, conniving and lewd physical intentions that leave very little to the imagination!
The cast then switch roles, in the blink of an eye, inhabiting a variety of costumes, giving a youthful vitality and truth to the poetic language, while the audience sits back and revels in the honest vulgarity of the performances. During the course of one of the tales, there is much energetic leaping in and out of beds (or more accurately, carefully positioned white sheets) that would no doubt draw an appreciative leery chuckle from the late Sid James!
For me however, the superb unified quality of all the players on show was the real strength of the production, with not as much as a false step, move or bungled line between them. I managed to have a few words afterwards with a couple of the cast and was mightily impressed at just how they had all managed to capture the sheer volume, as well as the richness of Chaucer’s dialogue and prose – all within a week! This was a tremendous achievement in itself.
So please don’t for one minute, imagine that this is some heavy, weighty, highbrow adaptation that is destined to be appreciated only by literary students and academics.
I can assure you that you will come away (following many a belly laugh) fully entertained at this faithful adaptation of one of the enduring glories of English literature. With this young Company richly deserving much loud applause for bringing these durable tales to the Fringe.